A half-dozen years ago — when I was in my mid-50s, with two successful careers under my belt — I set out to settle some questions that friends, colleagues, clients and I had begun to wrestle with:
After a career of 20, 30 or 40 years, am I a done deal?
Is it true that success is a younger person’s game?
Might I have talents or brainpower that I'm unaware of?
Can I make money and make a difference doing something I love?
Many people I knew around my age had already seen their previously “invulnerable” jobs, companies and even industries derailed by technological or global change. Others had grown restless or burned out in their businesses or professions. A few had “flunked retirement,” finding the so-called golden years mind-numbingly boring.
With the onset of the Great Recession, even the most fortunate among us found that our financial nest eggs and long-term plans were much shakier than we had ever imagined.
Although we arrived at this conclusion in different ways, we all began to realize that in life’s new second half — extended by medicine’s miracles yet filled with unprecedented uncertainties — a bewildering new challenge was staring us in the face: What should I do next?
My 3 Discoveries About Reinvention
Crisscrossing America to interview people who had reinvented themselves and researching the latest breakthroughs in brain science, psychology, human performance, creativity and happiness for my new book, Boundless Potential
, I made three life-altering discoveries about what we need to do to reinvent ourselves at midlife and beyond:
1. We need to stress our brains. In the past decade, state-of-the-art neuroscience has revealed that, after age 45 or so, our brains are programmed to generate extraordinary new creative skills and intellectual powers that were unavailable to us earlier in life.
Neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak wrote that “the brain of an older person is not inferior to that of a younger counterpart; instead, the brain of an 80-year-old is organized differently. In practical terms this means the mature brain possesses strengths and assets that it lacked decades earlier.”
The secret to uncovering and unleashing these capabilities is to work our brains beyond their usual comfort level. (As one Next Avenue article explains, you can even train your brain through video games
2. We need to think and act entrepreneurially. A growing number of men and women are learning how to successfully leverage this inborn potential after 50. But rather than subjecting themselves to the vagaries of the job market, they’re creating long-term success by inventing profitable new careers, businesses and avenues for social impact that can — and do —extend well into their 70s, 80s, even 90s.
In Boundless Potential
, I tell the tale of Mark Goldsmith, who had retired from his career as a sales and general manager in the cosmetics and beauty industry and was climbing the walls. But at 74, after spending a few years mentoring former prisoners from Rikers Island on his own, Goldsmith launched a nonprofit — Getting Out and Staying Out
— that offers job-readiness training and employment assistance to current and former Rikers inmates. Goldsmith told me: "If you find a passion or a direction, you have to get out there and try something. After you think about it, then go out and begin.”
3. We need to “pay it forward.” Longevity experts are increasingly convinced that doing the kind of work that “pays it forward” to future generations also pays us back through our own long-term health and happiness.
My Boundless Potential interviews with men and women who reinvented themselves confirmed this.
For instance, Marion Rosen, a former Berkeley, Calif., physical therapist who started a tiny therapeutic training group when she was in her mid-60s, continued successfully spreading the “Rosen Method
” to 17 counties over the next three decades.
Not long before she died at 97, Rosen, who had escaped Nazi Germany in her mid-20s, told me: “I always feel when you have a potential, you really have to use it. We all have potential inside of us. When we are at the height of our knowledge and the height of our lives, why give that up? Why should we not use what we have gotten in 60, 70 or more years and hand it on to where it is wanted?”
By Mark S. Walton
Mark S. Walton is chairman of the Center for Leadership Communication, an education and communication enterprise with a focus on leadership and exceptional achievement at every stage of life. He is a leadership educator, management adviser, and award-winning journalist (CNN's first chief White House correspondent) whose work has spanned nearly four decades. His most recent book is Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond (McGraw-Hill, 2012).
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